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“You have to go hear us in D.C.,” Otis Taylor told me following his band’s show this past Sunday at the jazz and blues club Dazzle in Denver. “We’re gonna have sacred steel player Chuck Campbell with us. It’s going to be intense.” The Chicago-raised former antique dealer, now based in Colorado, calls his sound trance blues, so his use of the word “intense” is no mere musician’s cliché. Taylor’s music is anchored by his repeating guitar lines with few chord changes, and his melancholy, quietly powerful vocals. (His band has a rhythm section, a second guitar, violin, and sometimes pedal steel.) While Taylor’s live approach incorporates some of the trappings of standard electric blues, the group’s rendition of “Hey Joe” in Denver was anything but conventional. Taylor, over the phone, says he’s been playing guitar the way he does now “since I was about 15. I played the banjo when I was young and it has a drone-like modal sound.”
Tonight, Taylor and his band perform at Blues Alley in support of his latest album, Contraband. Best known for his song “Ten Million Slaves,” which appeared on the soundtrack to Michael Mann’s movie Public Enemies, the 63-year-old Taylor has been a critic’s fave since 1995. The title of Taylor’s current album comes from an article he read in Preservation Magazine about runaway slaves who encamped near Union soldiers. “My wife showed me the article and it was real interesting,” he says. “These people should have been considered prisoners of war, but they were treated like animals and called contraband.” The picture of Taylor on the cover may be a subtle attempt to further convey the title’s meaning. “The photographer had me wear a sheep rug. He’s done all 12 of my albums. I just let him do his thing,” Taylor says.
Taylor’s albums all share certain characteristics, he says: “My writing is always the same. It’s just the concept of how the instruments are going to come together that changes. Contraband started as an acoustic album. I wanted to get some songs done before I went into the hospital for surgery for a cyst connected to my spine.” The surgery was successful, and Taylor then added more instrumentation to the recordings—a trumpet, djembe player, and a gospel choir in addition to his band and Chuck Campbell. While Taylor may use historical elements in his lyrics, throughout his career he’s been more of a storyteller than a protest singer. Contraband offers more such characters—the wrongly detained prisoner of “Open These Bars,” the older man who lived with the “Blind Piano Teacher,” and the cheating woman of “I Can See You’re Lying,” to name a few. With their minimalist techniques this evening, Taylor and his group will brushstroke these individuals into existence.
Otis Taylor and band perform tonight at 8 and 10 p.m. at Blues Alley. $25.